Is it creepy that Facebook knows who I talked to on Friday night?

tim burrowes landscapeFacebook appeared to track who Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes spoke to at an industry event, via the phone in his pocket.

So on Friday I was at the Andrew Olle lecture in Sydney.

It was a great night, mainly thanks to Kate McClymont’s wonderfully inspiring speech on life as an investigative reporter.

It was also an evening that my phone stayed in my tux all night. No Facebook check-in and I didn’t even tweet.

But something odd happened that next morning. Like a character in a movie with too much exposition-through-dialogue, I actually said the words “What the fuck?”, aloud.

When I got up, Facebook showed me a bunch of new alternatives in its “People you may know” offering. And most of them were people I’d brushed shoulders with at the event.

First came technologist Kate Carruthers, who I bumped into as I walked in through the door of the event, and made polite conversation with – somebody whose path I probably haven’t crossed in a year or more.

Kate Carruthers facebook

Then it offered me Sally Jackson – the former journalist from The Australian who now works in a PR role at the ABC. Again, I chatted to Sally on the night.

sally jackson facebook

Another option it offered to me was The Guardian’s Amanda Meade.

facebook amanda meade

Guess what – I chatted to her too.

And during the night, Louisa Graham, GM of the Walkley Foundation, came over to our table to say hello. Now Facebook was suggesting we know each other.

facebook louisa graham walkley

And two tables over from where I was sitting (and further forward in the room, natch) was ABC boss Mark Scott.

The next morning, Facebook put him forward to.

facebook abc mark scott


Now it could all be a coincidence of course. It also suggested some media types I didn’t bump into.

And all of those suggestions do have multiple connections with a number of my existing Facebook friends.

But I don’t remember seeing Facebook suggest any of them to me before, which is what makes me think it is more than a coincidence. (I have asked Facebook for comment, by the way. I’ll let you know if they respond.)

And there’s a clue in the app settings on my iPhone.

facebook privacy setting

This appears to be the default setting. It’s only after I went looking, that I discovered it: “Facebook uses this to help people find places, connect with friends and more”.

My first reaction when I was fed these names was to be slightly creeped out. After all, this wasn’t even simply people out of the few hundred people in the room – it was those I was in close proximity to.

But should I be creeped out at all?

For starters, I can change the setting. And now that I know about it, I don’t really see any reason to do so. It’s potentially useful.

But it points to a wider issue for the media and marketing industry over digital privacy.

My first reaction was, as I say, to be creeped out.

But when I thought about it, the potential benefit, in my view, outweighed the privacy issue.

And this is the challenge for the industry as a whole.

The hype of the possibilities of mining data for more targeted marketing is finally coming good.

But the industry is often failing to effectively make the argument for the benefits to consumers of this.

At its simplest, targeted ads are more interesting and useful for consumers than untargeted ads. The same goes in the possible benefits when apps know you better.

But as an industry, it needs to be sold in to consumers.

When you’re expecting it, your data being used to improve your experience can be a delight. When you’re not, it’s creepy.

November 7 update: Facebook has now supplied the following comment: “We don’t currently use location to power PYMK (people you may know). We don’t use background location for any purpose for people who don’t have it enabled.”

Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella


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